The great escapist

AS a secret prisoner of war in a Nazi concentration camp, Walter Steilberg's daily diet consisted of little more than watery soup made from potato peelings.

Occasionally, 'funny little bits of meat' would be found floating in his 'slops', but Walter, or Digger, as he was known during the war, was not grateful for the additional food as he had every reason to believe he was being fed human flesh. It's not surprising he lost 32kg during his time in various camps. Nor was he thankful for the clean set of sheets that were delivered once a week, as there was no bed to put them on.

Walter Steilberg, born on the North Coast, is known as Wal around Grafton where he and his wife Doris have lived for more than 20 years.

Most people also know he is a returned soldier, but few have heard the details of his service during World War Two.

Despite surviving an intense and disastrous battle for Crete in 1941, eight heroic escapes from German prisoner of war camps in Europe, then eight months of hellish torment in Terezin the Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia

Wal's experience was denied by both the Australian Army and successive Australian Governments.

His story has had plenty of guts, but very little glory attached. Until now.

Sydney-based journalist Paul Rea's new book Voices From The Fortress (ABC Books) tracks the capture, escapes and experiences of a number of prisoners of war who ended up in the hellish Terezin towards the end of the war. It's a miracle these men came out alive and according to Wal, at least one of his mates came out 'a cot case'.

Another, Bob Slater, who settled in Perth after the war, suffered ill health after contracting typhus in a camp infested with body lice and fleas.

Paul Rea first heard the story of one of these soldiers in 1978 when he was contacted by an Australian living in England.

The article he wrote for the Newcastle Herald reported the Australian Government's response which stated: "We have no record of any Australians being held in any concentration camps. Therefore it didn't happen."

Mr Rea was flabbergasted by 'the bureaucratic indifference to the welfare of these men'. It was, he said 'heartless and cruel'.

Wal already knew how cruel it was and when he spotted the Newcastle Herald story, he wrote to Paul Rea saying 'if you were there, like I was, you wouldn't forget it for 100 years'.

A collaborated and determined campaign to have the Australian servicemen's experience acknowledged included about 30 or more articles written by Mr Rea, nine years of lobbying in Canberra and a powerful documentary scripted by Mr Rea, which earned him the inaugural Australian Human Rights Print Media Award.

Finally, after 40 years of denial, the Bob Hawke Government agreed to recognise these men and granted them each $10,000 compensation. In a sense, Mr Rea's job was finished, but as a result of his research and what he describes as 'squeaky gate journalism' the act of irritation in a relentless pursuit of a goal he had a mass of taped conversations with these men and now, 20 years later, he has transcribed them in order to tell their stories in print.

Although a number of returned servicemen feature here, the book is dedicated to Wal, who Rea described as 'a rare breed of guy'.

"He's got such determination. Wally is part of a small elite as far as escaping is concerned."

Back in Grafton yesterday after a trip to Sydney for the book launch, Wal looked tired, but happy to be home.

Speaking of the unspeakable is still new to him and clearly he wished his mate Bob Slater was around to see the book.

"I'll never forget one day in Terezin old Bob said 'Digger, I'm so hungry, I could eat a scabby cat'."

The book is available at ABC shops, online and selected book stores.

11 armed robberies in 4 years

A Grafton store was robbed by an axe-wielding bandit on Monday, 4th of April, 2016.

Armed robberies not new, but dealing with trauma never gets easier

BRING ON 2017: Jacaranda's path to a bright future

Newly elected committee Jeff Smith, Helen Templeton, Peg James, Leanne Smith, Kristen Smith, Wendy Gibbs and Kelle Murphy get excited for the official start of the Jacaranda Festival with the 2017 AGM on Tuesday night.

Changes to Grafton's flagship festival receive tick of approval

VIDEO: "We must take a stand against crime in Grafton"

Donuts and Dairy owner Karen Collins has said Grafton Food Emporium tenants will not tolerate theft at the centre after her cafe was held up at knife point on Monday, 27th February, 2017.

Police praised as heroes in knifepoint robbery arrests

Local Partners

Amanda's Camellia Cottage work gets reward

Often working under the radar, Amanda's support work has earned her Clarence Woman of the year nod.

Women's AFL is flying high. Here's your chance to play

Georgia Breward and Lillian Doyle - selected in the Queensland u17 AFL squad.Photo Adam Hourigan / The Daily Examiner

Are you a girl aged 13 to 17 interested in trying AFL?

Would you like to meet the Clarence Valley's politicians?

Member for the Clarence Chris Gulaptis and Member for Page Kevin Hogan

Lawrence Golf Club to host Politicians Report Dinner

Are you brave enough to Shave For A Cure?

Sarah Dougherty and Virlissa Adams, right, will lose their locks on March 16 to raise money for the Leukaemia Foundation.

Grafton disability organisation calling for participants

WHATS ON: Clarence Valley gig guide

This weekend is jam packed with brilliant bands to see in the Clarence Valley

Laugh and cry with God's Waiting Room

Sue Kearney, who plays one of the characters from God's Waiting Room, which is on at the Pelican Playhouse from March 3.

You will laugh and cry with God's Waiting Room

MKR recap: The secret ingredients to longevity and success

It’s chilli con carnage on MKR.

‘Turn up the heat’ means chillies. Lots of chillies.

MOVIE REVIEW: Logan doesn't pull any punches

THE WOLVERINE: Hugh Jackman in a scene from the movie Logan.

Gritty, real performances worth the gore in new X-Men movie.

Booval boy keeps winning over bride

BUILDING A BOND: Alene Khatcherian and Simon McQuillan are still going strong on Married At First Sight.

Alene Khatcherian and Simon McQuillan are still going strong

WATCH: I'm A Celebrity's 'most dangerous’ jungle test yet

Jonathon ‘J. Mo’ Moran testing the Riding High Tucker Trial on set of I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here!

Lisa Curry will take on reality show's ‘most dangerous’ Tucker Trial

MOVIE REVIEW: Miss Sloane is entertaining and smart

Jessica Chastain in a scene from the movie Miss Sloane.

JESSICA Chastain is superb as formidable lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane.

Major Burrum Heads development to go to vote

Site development plans for the proposed lot conversion at Burrum Heads, near Beach Dr.

Councillors will vote on the lot conversions.

Casino boss loses $4m on waterfront Sunshine Coast home

The owner of this stunning Noosa home accepted much less than he had initially wanted for the home.

When illness struck owner forced to try and cash out of property

Mining homes dive: $600k homes sell for $120k-$300k

18 Yeates Street, Moranbah sold for $135,000 in December, after being repossessed by a bank. The owners bought for $545,000 in August, 2011.

The economy still has two speeds, but with a painful twist

The trick homeowners are using to buy more properties

Chantelle Subritzky leaves her home each week for Airbnb guests.

Queenslanders are going down this path to help pay their mortgages

Stunning home blends South Pacific beauty with Orient style

Immaculate residence with two outdoor living areas

Ready to SELL your property?

Post Your Ad Here!